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Object: Battle of the sea gods

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Title Battle of the sea gods
Production Mantegna, Andrea (artist), early 1470s-circa 1490, Italy
Medium summary engraving
Materials paper, ink
Classification prints, engravings, drypoints, works on paper
Technique engraving
Dimensions Image: 262mm (Height) x 391mm (Width)
Support: 262mm (Height) x 391mm (Width)
Frame: 530mm (Height) x 630mm (Width) x 40mm (Depth)
Credit line Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869
Registration number 1869-0001-309

Andrea Mantegna's famous engraving, of which this is only the right half, shows the fierce conflict between two Tritons (half man, half sea serpent), each carrying a female siren on his tail. The exact meaning of the battle is something of a mystery. One clue is the figure of Envy, who appears as a hideous hag in the left half of the print (not in the Te Papa collection), which has led some to suggest that this is a battle of the 'Telchines' - a mythical race of notoriously bellicose and jealous sea-creatures who are also sculptors. This combination of classical learning and an allusion to the contemporary Renaissance debate over the relatively superiority of painting or sculpture would have appealed to Mantegna and his humanist patrons at the Gonzaga court in Mantua, where Mantegna spent most of his professional life.

This engraving is the largest and most complex of the seven prints generally attributed to Mantegna. Its horizontal format and frieze-like appearance betray the artist's passion for classical sculptural reliefs, which were avidly collected in Renaissance Italy, and especially in Rome, where Mantegna spent two years from 1488 to 1490. It is not known exactly when he made this engraving, but it must have been before 1494, when Albrecht Dürer made a detailed pen and ink copy of it during his first visit to Venice. Nor is it known why Dürer did not simply acquire an impression of the print. Perhaps it was already rare and expnsive. Whatever the case, Dürer's encounter with Mantegna's work deeply influenced his subsequent engravings such as Hercules.

Current debate about Mantegna's prints centred on the issue of attribution: one scholar has argued that Mantegna never made any prints himself but relied on professional engravers. However, recent stereoscopic analysis of the seven engravings generally ascribed to Mantegna has revealed a technical progression that is consistent with the belief that they were made by the same hand developing over time, rather by an already fully trained craftsman. Though still inconclusive, this scientific analysis tends to support the traditional attribution to Mantegna.

David Maskill, 'Andrea Mantegna 1431-1506 Italy', in Art at Te Papa, edited by William McAloon (Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2009), 24.

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